In the month since Hurricane Katrina sparked one of the quickest and most widespread diasporas in American history, the Charlotte region gained hundreds, possibly thousands of new residents. Here, far from the decadent splendor of New Orleans, far from the homes these people were reluctant or unable to leave voluntarily, they are expected to establish new lives. Their homes ruined by floodwaters, many lifetimes' worth of belongings destroyed, Charlotte's new residents are expected to find jobs, learn in schools, shop for groceries and make friends.
One thing is for sure: The effort to help evacuees is unlike anything Charlotte has experienced. About 600 evacuees have sought housing here, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police estimates. Project TASK, a coalition formed by social service, religious and government groups, is trying to determine how many new residents are spread throughout the area. Spokesman Michael Andrews estimates the number could be between 1,000 and 4,000 people.
In a county of more than 800,000 people, that's not necessarily a hard number to absorb. Recent years have seen many more people flock to the area -- in 2002, for example, Mecklenburg County's population grew by more than 8,600 residents. But most of those new residents probably brought with them at least a toothbrush.
Daria Mouton, a 30-year-old cook's assistant from New Orleans, brought more than a toothbrush, but hardly everything she owned. She arrived in Charlotte with more than a dozen family members and friends who fled before the storm hit. After Mouton's mom returns to Louisiana to inspect the damage, they'll decide whether to return home or start anew in Charlotte. "As far as we know, there's nothing really to go back to," she said.
Helping so many new residents is an unprecedented task for Charlotte, says Andrews. "Just getting those people services was a challenge. . .in an already somewhat overburdened social service system," he said.
So far, no comprehensive database is tracking the evacuees or assessing their needs, though Project TASK (Transitional Assistance to Survivors of Katrina) is now trying to do that by compiling records from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and various faith groups.
"We want to be sure that if you're here in Charlotte, everything you need is taken care of," said Kay Carter, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina and member of Project TASK.
Ellen Scarborough, a Red Cross volunteer, said her agency doesn't track the evacuees after they sign out from the Charlotte Coliseum, though help is available at the agency's Park Road office. Before the Coliseum closed earlier this month, 1,041 people stayed at there at least one night.
The Salvation Army moved people left at the Coliseum to its shelter on Clanton Road. Army spokesman Jim Price said it's seeking permanent or semi-permanent homes for 131 evacuees (some of whom could return home), and has already placed more than 100 people.
While the hurricane has put the philanthropic capacity of Charlotte to the test, city and county representatives say residents won't see any tax hikes or cuts to services. FEMA is expected to reimburse all but $75,000 of the estimated $370,000 the City of Charlotte has spent, city spokeswoman Julie Hill said. What's left could be covered by the city's fund balance maintained for such unforeseeable expenses. Mecklenburg County has spent about $190,000, mostly on salaries for county employees who have helped evacuees, spokesman Danny Diehl said. Officials are still evaluating the final tab and consulting with FEMA to determine how much the agency will reimburse the county. "At this time, there's no plan in a reduction of any other program or service to offset that cost," Diehl said.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are concerned about the 60 evacuees whose background checks yielded evidence of convictions for serious felonies, Sgt. Katherine Scheimreif said. Police conducted checks on 552 evacuees and found that 162 had some sort of criminal record. The checks were conducted using names and birth dates offered by evacuees -- not fingerprints -- so the actual number of convictions could be different, Scheimreif said. Louisiana authorities are tied up with other matters and not easily reached, she said. She didn't know how such numbers would compare to the general population.
Even if Charlotte-area residents don't see Katrina's impact on local tax bills, they're likely to be affected in other ways, if they haven't already. New neighbors are popping up in neighborhoods and new students in schools. Also, social service agencies hope the Katrina response strengthens local social services agencies. Andrews said the Katrina-spawned coordination between human service agencies could yield dividends long after evacuees either settle down here or return to the Gulf. "Our human service response system will be better off a year from now as a result of having to deal with these issues," he said. "Absolutely."
The evacuees' arrival, Andrews said, has raised important issues for Charlotteans to consider. "One of the questions our community has to ask ourselves, in the face of dealing with Katrina, is how we are managing the needs we are already faced with," Andrews said.
Some advocates for the homeless told Creative Loafing they have been cheered to see dollars pouring in for Katrina victims, but the advocates also are frustrated that local social problems weren't addressed with similar enthusiasm. It is as if, one said, people seem relatively unaware of the homelessness already in their city. "It's just not on people's radar screens," said Karen Montaperto, executive director of Charlotte Emergency Housing.
Andrews said Project TASK doesn't want anybody falling through the cracks. "Now we're getting into kind of a spiritual question, a moral question. How much does society want to reach out? ... Somebody sitting in a hotel at the AmeriSuites who has left the Charlotte Coliseum and has nothing back in the Gulf, how much is enough for that person?